01-01-2009 - Traces, n. 1
reportage from hanoi

Free, even
in vietnam

A look at a country that is still proud of calling itself “socialist,” where faith suffers persecution, and where those in power had hoped that the Catholics would disappear. But their presence has grown. Today, their presence also questions those who govern the Country, in the name of a freshness that cannot be found elsewhere

by Lorenzo Fazzini

‘‘With the restrictions imposed since 1975, the government thought that the Church would have declined until disappearing. Instead, the Catholics became more zealous.” For 33 years, His Eminence Paul Nguyen Van Hoa has been Bishop of Nha Trang, a coastal city of 300,000 inhabitants in South Vietnam. His light blue eyes light up when he makes this observation. It might be a paradox, but the past persecution and the strict control of today have actually made the Church stronger. Today, Vietnam counts some 7 million believers, 8% of the population of a country that proudly defines itself a “Socialist Republic.” In Hanoi, flags with the hammer and sickle fly over many buildings and the Party rules as the undisputed sovereign. Obviously, here too, business is business. The tumultuous economic development (growth is at 8%) is due to considerable Japanese, South Korean, and American investments (while the average monthly salary is only between $80 and $100 dollars). Freedom of opinion, word, and press do not exist and, as the news confirms, Catholics are a bother. On December 8th, eight believers of the parish church of Thai Ha, a suburb of Hanoi, were condemned to a prison sentence of between 12 and 17 months (later suspended to a probation). The reason? They “disturbed the public peace” and “caused public damage” in praying on the Redemptorist Brothers church grounds, which had been confiscated by the government in 1959 and now reclaimed by the congregation.

Red bureaucracy. This looks normal in a nation where, theoretically, the Constitution recognizes religious freedom, but the Church still remains subject to continuous restrictions. For every ecclesial action–priest ordinations, change or displacement of bishops, new initiatives–state authorization is needed. If one does not go through the “red” bureaucracy, the consequences are harsh. In October, two Franciscan brethren, missionaries in the Montagnard region–a minority in the central plateau–distributed, without authorization, medicine to the poor people of a village. They were arrested for a day.
The Church is fighting to obtain the restitution of buildings seized in the past by the State, but often the government–an accomplice in a very diffused corruption–sells them to private companies that convert them into hotels, restaurants, and even night clubs. In September, thousands of believers took to the streets, praying, to ask the People’s Committee of Hanoi for restitution of the former Apostolic Nunciature and the annexed land situated next to the Church of Saint Joseph. In response, the authorities sent police in riot gear who attacked the aged and children with electrical batons and tear gas.
“A clear violation of human rights,” denounced Bishop of Hanoi Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet. The state media carried out a very strong campaign against this courageous bishop, “guilty” of having declared that “religious freedom is not a concession but a right.” The Party demanded his  removal but the entire episcopacy took sides with him.
The Catholics in Vietnam have already suffered “the great tribulation.” This was when, in 1975, with the conquest of former Saigon by the Vietcong, all the churches where shut down, seminaries sealed off, and ecclesiastical property confiscated by the government. Only after the doi moi (1986), the Vietnamese equivalent of the Soviet perestroika, was the Church able to take off again. Parishes were reopened, slowly the seminaries were restored (at the moment, there are seven), and a new vital force emerged in the pastoral activities. However, the Communist diktat remained: faith must remain confined within the walls of the parish property; no public area can be “infected” by religion.
“Our Church is founded on the solid faith of our martyrs,” explains H. E. Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, President of the Bishops. In the nineteenth century, during the persecution by the Mandarin Buddhists, 150,000 believers were killed because they were disciples of Christ.
“On the religious level, family tradition is still important. Every family hopes to have an ordained son or a daughter,” observes the Bishop of Dalat. The proof of this is the crowded formation schools: 250 seminarians in Xuan Loc, 200 in Nha Trang, 300 in the capital, and there are just as many aspirants and 70 Salesian clergymen spread out in Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City. Every year, 4,000 laymen are trained in the diocese of former Saigon. The Jesuits have 37 novices, 37 priests, and 150 candidates to the religious life.
Participation at the Catholic Sunday Mass is very high, 90%. In the Salesian parish of Xuan Hiep, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, this actually can be felt. There are 6,000 parishioners, 5,000 of whom attend the five Sunday Masses. There are many young people that flock into the former southern capital, which is economically more developed, looking for jobs. “They leave their families and they find themselves alone in an unknown place,” says Father John, one of the Salesians. “We take care of them; we visit them at home; we teach them how to manage their time, the house, and the work.” Every evening, hundreds of youths recite the rosary in front of the Mary Help of Christians statue. On Monday, there are choir rehearsals; on Tuesday, pre-Cana courses; on Thursday, confessions and worship.
In addition, there is no shortage of conversions, even with Communists. “Every person must find an anchor in life,” points out Cardinal Pham Minh Manh, Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City. “The same will happen to the Communists that will convert. They see in the Church something on which they can depend because they discover charity and they understand that they can place their trust in it. Teachers and scientists have converted. There has also been a case of a judge of the Supreme Court.” Every year, the Church conducts 9,000 adult baptisms. Why do people convert? “I will answer your question by quoting what the former premier Vo Van Kiet told me about the religious women that work in state centers for people with AIDS: only the Catholics have the heart to take care of people with AIDS. Charity is what touches non-Christians. In the sixteenth century, when the French missionaries arrived here, people said they brought a ‘religion of love.’ Today, the same thing is said by the Communist authorities.”

Charity strikes. Beyond the old airport of Nha Trang, there is a well-kept light blue house with a tiny garden. On the walls are cartoon drawings and images for children; the sound of music comes from a stereo and the boisterous clapping of a group of young children can be heard. They have Down’s Syndrome or are otherwise disabled, and deaf-and-dumb. Seven sisters from the Claretian congregation live here. Several years ago, they opened the doors to 50 girls and adolescents. Moreover, they are not Catholics, but “we welcome them according to charity,” explains one of the sisters who had studied in Switzerland. “There are also children of some of the Party managers,” who chose the care of these sisters for their disabled children.
The passion for the next person motivates the Catholics to devote themselves also in a field–that of those with AIDS–in which bureaucracy and state disinterest reigns. “No one wants to take on this sector; there are doctors and nurses assigned to this kind of job, but they do not carry it out,” denounces Cardinal Manh. The Church practically “obliged” the government to allow the other religions to take care of the poor. “The Office for Religious Affairs recently organized a reunion with the recognized different religions. They wanted to ask our participation in the education of the young to confront the problem of AIDS. Up to now, the government had never granted this permission. In our diocese, 16 congregations and more than 100 volunteers privately take care of people in the last stages of AIDS. They have helped many people to die in peace and the majority asked to be baptized.”
Now, the diocese of Ho Chi Minh is planning a center in Ly Hòa Hiep that will welcome the sick. “Various congregations will be involved. Sister Nirmala, heir to Mother Theresa, head of the Missionaries of Charity, came to Vietnam and told the government, ‘We want to serve the poor,’ and they sent her from one ministry to another. Finally she arrived to us.”
Charity “strikes” the non-Christians. “We are not allowed to preach the Gospel directly, but we can profess love,” summarizes Thefano Nguyên Nhu Thê, Archbishop of Hue, a city situated in the center of the country. Do nonbelievers understand that this solidarity has a religious reference? “Of course they understand that behind it there is faith. There are not many baptisms but numerous spiritual conversions. When they experience charity, the hearts of the people turn to Christ.”